Cuba 312 in the 773

Cuba 312A few weeks ago while going to a restaurant in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighbourhood, I noticed a Cuban restaurant on the landscape. Cuba 312 at 2054 W. Roscoe Street was apparently new, as of the past few months. Or I had been distracted by other restaurants on the block. Needless to say, there was no way that I was going to let time slip by me without going to see what kind of food fare they had for my appetite.

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche

Comfy and spacious on the inside, the server greeted me with a hearty welcome. That set a tone for great customer service. And because I had arrived not too soon after the doors had opened for business for the morning, I had a bit of time to order in an experimental fashion without any rush. There were a few items on the menu that piqued my craving. I mentioned my likes and let the server make recommendations for appetizers and a sandwich.

While I waited for the food to come to the table, I had a cafe con leche. Let me say that if you go to a Cuban restaurant and turn your nose up at the option of having a cafe con leche, you should be ashamed. At Cuba 312, there seemingly was a balance to whatever measuring they did such that the cafe con leche was not excessively sweet and whatever bean they used for the coffee was of high quality.

Empanadas: Pollo y Mariscos

Empanadas: Pollo y Mariscos

First to the table was an order of empanadas. There was a chicken empanada that had well seasoned, shredded chicken and potatoes in a savoury sauce. There was also a seafood empanada that was in another tasty sauce. Served with a chimichurri sauce, the window seat was the wrong place to sit for a display of food happiness experienced at each bite. For years I had searched for empanadas to rival some that a Chilean restaurant I had gone to served before they closed. My search ended today at Cuba 312.

Jibarito Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles

Jibarito Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles

Next to the table was the sandwich of all sandwiches. I had a jibarito pollo. Many say that jibaritos became a staple born out of Cuban communities in New York City rather than off the island of Cuba. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever Cuban came up with the notion of a sandwich served between tostones, or pressed and fried plantains, created a masterpiece wherever he or she was. And following in that tradition, the jibarito at Cuba 312 came with seasoned, tender chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and a zesty mayonnaise that resulted in the sandwich getting undivided attention. This dish came with white rice and frijoles that also felt my appreciation.

Honey Pistachio Flan

Honey Pistachio Flan

It was a casual morning, so I treated myself to two desserts. The first one was a honey pistachio flan. Wow. Once you have had a flan that is creamy, and not of the Jell-O variety, you will take a vow of never eating flan of any other texture. The server described the texture as that of crème brûlée, but it seemed less grainy, almost like a combination of a mousse and custard. Topped with whipped cream and a strawberry, this falls into the cloud 9 dessert category. And, as if the flan was not already an outstanding item, there was a cup full of coconut sour cream cake with pineapples and lime zest accompanied with toasted coconut ice cream. Jesus Christ. Muhammed. Buddha. Osirus. Odin. Zeus. Ego. Money. I think this was a feature dessert. All I can say is call ahead to see if it is on the menu. It is a must-have.

Coconut Sour Cream Cake with Toasted Coconut Ice Cream

Coconut Sour Cream Cake with Toasted Coconut Ice Cream

The Roscoe Village stretch of Roscoe Street between Western Avenue and Damen Avenue is a pedestrian’s fun spot. From clothing boutiques, to wine shops, to brunch locations, to eateries with international cuisine, there is something certain to appeal to your sensibilities. And if you are one who enjoys authenticity in your food, Cuba 312 is one of the few restaurants that I recommend highly. One thing that I am a stickler about in my dining experience is service and the service here is arguably top. Add to that some good Cuban food, you don’t have to wait until flights to Cuba from America open up. Va a Cuba 312 a 2054 W. Roscoe Street ahora. ¡Rapido!

Cuba 312 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine, Azuca, Azuca

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine

While wanting to get closer to Montrose Beach along Lake Michigan on Chicago’s North Side for a friend’s gathering, my appetite would not allow me to linger around with a growling belly before the come-together. I was in the Lakeview area in advance and not trying hard to tolerate my hunger pains. As luck, fate, or serendipity would have it, I was standing in front of Cohiba Cuban Cuisine at 2835 N. Broadway Street. Talk about great timing. Talk about being decisive enough to just go in. Talk about channeling my inner Celia Cruz: ¡Azucar!

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche

Realizing that I had plenty of time before the mid afternoon, I scanned the menu for something to satisfy my craving. There was a moment of indecisiveness before I said that I would start with a tostones rellenos de camarones, followed by a sopa de pollo. Curious as to what my server would recommend for a main dish, I accepted her suggestion for ropa viejo. And during my wait, I had a cup of cafe con leche. There is definitely an assurance that getting a cafe con leche at any Cuban restaurant or cafe may be the best option you exercise for the day, the cafe con leche at Cohiba being the one option of the day that I think made my day bright.

Tostones Rellenos de Camarones

Tostones Rellenos de Camarones

Sopa de Pollo

Sopa de Pollo

Seeing that the tostones rellenos de camarones was on the appetizer list, I thought that it was going to be small. It was rather substantial and an automatic favourite by the first bite. This was a green plantain stuffed with shrimp prepared in a tasty tomato sauce. Not peppery, but spicy nonetheless, I devoured as much as possible, while saving room for the sopa de pollo. This was the first moment that I mumbled ¡Azucar! under my breath. Filled with tender chicken, peppers, and miniature noodles, and with a chewy roll that was also ideal for sopping, I was quite pleased at having ordered this menu item.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja

Requiring some time before indulging the main dish, the server waited accordingly before bringing me a traditional Cuban dish that I usually order as a sandwich. The flavour of the shredded beef in a tomato base was mild, but it still was inviting enough that I refused to leave any. This was served with savoury black beans, sweet plantains, and rice. Thankful that the large party sitting not far from me was fully engaged in animated conversation, I was glad they did not hear me singing “Guantanamera” by Celia Cruz and mouthing ¡Azucar! Needless to say, these old clothes I liked a lot.

Flan de Vanilla

Flan de Vanilla

Now I was proper fed, but I was not yet finished. Per my server’s second recommendation, I had traditional flan de vanilla. Accompanied by another cafe con leche, I don’t know how I managed to walk upright after I was done. This was not some flan from the frozen section at a local market. I appreciated the caramel not being excessively sugary. And the flan had the texture of creamy quesillos. Also, having eaten so much already, the flan was just right for me being able to finish all without struggling.

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine is a medium sized restaurant with an “at home” atmosphere that I love. I went during late morning/early afternoon before the crowd began coming. Lucky for me because I got to not only enjoy the meal, but to at least get recommendations and even chat about Cuban food without there being any rush. There are a few Cuban restaurants I have gone to in Chicago and several that I will have to try in good time. But this was the first time that I couldn’t suppress my inner Celia Cruz. ¡Azucar!.

Cohiba Cuban Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Riques Cocina Mexicana

Riques Cocina Mexicana

While passing through Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood, there was a moment of wanting some Vietnamese food from one of the many restaurants along the Argyle-Broadway stretch. With it being hot and humid outside, I decided against a pho and knowing how much I love spicy food, I opted against any peppery dishes. During my indecision, I had wandered over towards Sheridan Road and walked up on a Mexican restaurant named Riques Cocina Mexicana at 5004 N. Sheridan Road. I settled on returning to the area for Vietnamese food another day. For this day, Mexican would suffice.

Horchata

Horchata

To somewhat take the edge off of the balmy feeling from outside, I had a horchata. It was clear from the first sip that this was not horchata from a bottle. I kid you not when I say that I could have ordered a jug of it for taking home.

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

To keep from stuffing myself, I passed on ordering an appetizer and ordered a main dish of chiliquiles rojo con pollo instead. Shredded chicken, scrambled eggs, and toasted frijoles in a red sauce topped with queso fresco were all I needed to satisfy my craving. Having had chiliquiles at numerous Mexican restaurants in Chicago since I moved to the city in 1995, I can honestly say that this was the best that I have had. And the side of frijoles and sweet plantanos made for an excellent lunch option.

Plantanos y Frijoles

Plantanos y Frijoles

As filling as the chiliquiles were, the dish was not so heavy that I did not have any room for a postre. I ordered a “la dona” noir, which was hot chocolate, cacao barry, and espresso. Just to be different, I asked for it to be prepared spicy with ancho and chipotle chilis. Needless to say, I got something spicy when that was what I was initially trying to avoid doing. The drink was outstanding. But what made me dance in my seat was the flan de elote. I am now addicted to flan with corn in it. The texture is not smooth the way regular flan is and it is not as sweet either, but it is still a fiesta on the tongue.

"La Dona" Noir

“La Dona” Noir

Flan de Elote

Flan de Elote

Riques Cocina Mexicana is a cozy restaurant with plenty of seating. Having gone during the middle of the day, there were several parties of individuals. With food and service being as great as what I experienced, I am sure there is a crowd during the evening seating. Although the plating looks more appealing than what you get at traditional Mexican restaurants, the flavour is absolutely true to Mexican cooking. When I eat enough to the point of stumbling out the door like a drunkard and needing to have a nap, it is definitely good. Believe me when I say that I stumbled to the el station, dozed on the el, napped on the bus, and slept well when I arrived home. I had an uninterrupted dream about Riques Cocina Mexicana.

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El Cid, Nobleman, Logan Square Restaurant

El  Cid

When summer arrives, I usually like to bike to other neighbourhoods in Chicago and have a brief walkabout. There is usually some new discovery or me finding something that I missed during my first visit. With Logan Square going through so many changes, I decided to take a stroll through my neighbourhood to see what was new and to also check out something old. This past Sunday, I finally went to what I imagine has been a staple in Logan Square — El Cid at 2645 N Kedzie Avenue.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

With nice weather, mildly humid from passing rain storms earlier in the day, I took advantage of the outdoor seating. I had a taste for a flight of mojitos, but the server recommended a margarita instead. His recommendation was a winner, and I paced myself downing it while devouring a basket of chips with a side of tomatilla salsa and another side of pica de gallo. The tomatilla salsa had a bite to it, a strong indicator that it may not have come from a jar. The pica de gallo was a winner. I swear it was doctored up with a mole and much like cilantro, mole goes great with everything.

Margarita

Margarita

There was so much on the menu that I had found appetizing. Being quick, I ordered vegetarian chimichangas. Served with dollops of sour cream and guacamole, these rolled tortillas stuffed with black beans, tomatoes, onions, rice, and cheese were fantastic street food snacks for my outdoor sit-down. By the time I had finished the basket of chips with salsa and the chimichangas, I was completing my margarita. I ordered another one.

Vegetarian Chimichangas

Vegetarian Chimichangas

Another appetizer I tried was a tamale. Delicious! There was nothing store-bought about the tamale. Not only did it come wrapped in a corn husk, but it was packed full of taste. My server had warned me about the red sauce. He mentioned that a dab will do you. The sauce was of the variety that people trying to prove a point will try. It has been loaded with habanero peppers. Nevertheless, I recommend the tamale. The red sauce looks good on the side only.

Tamale Con Salsa

Tamale Con Salsa

For an entrée, I settled for a seafood option. There was a salmon plate that came with Spanish rice and frijoles. Topped with a garlic salsa, the salmon was juicy and tender. The food smelled so good that I didn’t photograph as many shots as I normally do. And once I had my first fork of salmon along with some rice and the frijoles, I had declared the dish a winner, definitely not the usual enchiladas, tacos, and the like.

Salmon a la Parrilla

Salmon a la Parrilla

I went with a traditional Latin American dessert option: flan. This flan had coconut in it. And given the additional ingredient, one would think the texture would be coarse. No, the flan was smooth as a quesillo. It felt like slicing through melted butter and it tasted like bliss. I made a note to myself to be more aggressive in the gym this week. Flans are not necessarily friendly to the cholesterol and a third margarita isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to flatten your tummy.

Flan de Coco

Flan de Coco

El Cid has been on the Logan Square landscape since I moved to the neighbourhood several years ago. I was always under the impression that their doors opened at 5:00 PM, so I passed by it during the day on weekends and thought nothing of it. Yelp should update its page to reflect the proper time. At any rate, the service was top, the food was worth several more visits, and the price was extremely reasonable. I’ll have to remember El Cid, the idol of Spain, for the next time I return to the namesake on N. Kedzie Avenue. I’m sure he’ll pass my mind briefly before my third margarita.

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Rio’s D’Sudamerica in Norteamerica

Rio's D'Sudamerica

Up until the 90’s, Chicago’s go-to neighbourhoods for restaurant life were in the neighbourhoods that bordered Lake Michigan north of downtown. By the mid-90’s there was a new stretch of go-to neighbourhoods along Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue Line elevated train. Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Andersonville, and Edgewater now have competition. West Town, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, and Bucktown started gaining popularity, as swanky boutiques, independent coffeehouses, intimate restaurants, and nice housing filled the landscape. And none of the restaurants and shops were disappointing. For example, there is Rio’s D’Sudamerica at 2010 W. Armitage Avenue in Bucktown neighbourhood, where you can have some of the best, authentic Peruvian cuisine in the city.

A short trip from the now-popular Logan Square, I met a friend so that I could get an entry on Chicago Alphabet Soup for Peru. She started with a lemon drop martini and I started with a mojito. Compliments to the bartender for mixing drinks that weren’t watery or overpowering. To quote Goldilocks, “It was just right.” My friend had been to Rio’s D’Sudamerica before, so I accepted her recommendations. One that sounded rather pedestrian was papa a la huancaina. This is now my favourite potato salad. The creamy sauce made the dish a dream. With us being seafood fanatics, we also ordered a dish of camarones en costra de quinua con pure de yuca-rocoto y salsa de maracuya. Four plump shrimp, encrusted in quinoa, were served over yucca seasoned with rocoto, olive oil, and lemon juice glazed with passion fruit sauce. Who in his or her right mind would want to awake from this dream?

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

As if the appetizers weren’t divine enough, there was a platter of camarones a la plancha for an entrée. It would be hard to tire of eating sautéed shrimp that had been cooked in a red chili sauce and topped with a garlic and butter cream sauce. Served with white rice that actually had flavour, this was an entrée to enjoy slowly. Although I have had camarones al la plancha before, this was the first time I was silent because it was so lip-smacking. The dish that was new to me was the plate of arroz chuafa con camarones. I have had my share of Chinese fried rice and liked it. However, I am now in love with Peruvian fried rice and the shrimp that exploded in this rice dish that was sautéed with green onions, egg, ginger, and soy sauce was absolutely addictive. I am a fan.

Because the appetizers and entrées were hearty, we sat for awhile and let our bellies settle before our final attack on some desserts. Light in texture, full of flavour, and heavy on the arteries, we had flan Peruano. This was not a regular flan, for it was creamy. The texture was not like that of old Jell-O, but like slicing through a cloud. Not drowned in a caramel glaze, it wasn’t sugary, which made it that more enjoyable on the palate. The dessert that could result in a continuous, long line outside of Rio’s D’Sudamerica is the lucuma temptation. This ice cream, which is made from the lucuma fruit, yielded the flavour of dulce con leche. Had we not been sated, I would have ordered another dish of it.

Rio’s D’Sudamerica has a large interior with plenty of seating. Because the food on the incredible scale is perhaps a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10, the restaurant fills up quickly. As always, I am a stickler for quality of food, service, and price. Rio’s D’Sudamerica blew me away on all three. This is one of the reasons why Bucktown is one of the sought-after neighbourhoods in Chicago. It is definitely the main reason I have an entry on my calendar for a return in a few weeks.

Rios D'Sudamerica on Urbanspoon

Loving the Whole Brazilian Food Experience

Brazilian Bowl

When you have lived in Chicago, Illinois, for eighteen years, there are a few things that you do not take for granted. The traffic is not easy on those of us who drive manual shift cars. You really do not need a car living in the city proper. People go on red and stop on green. The temperatures do not warm up until mid to late June, albeit there will be a few days of teasingly warm temperatures between February and May. It’s the latter that makes me hanker for being able to split my time between Chicago during the warmer months and Brazil during the rest of the year. I can dream, though. And I can also go to one of several Brazilian restaurants in the city when I need something to put me in the mind of being in a warmer climate like that of Brazil. And on a certain frosty evening after work, I met up with a friend in Chicago’s Lakeview at Brazilian Bowl at 3204 N. Broadway. Well, since I can’t get to Brazil the way I would like, the alternative is accepting the fact that a bit of Brazil has come to Chicago.

Steak Bowl

Brazilian Bowl is a relatively small cafe that has a few high tables and a lot of character as far as the Lakeview scene goes. I had gone twice in 2012 shortly after the cafe had opened. They were still in the throes of finding their place. Many kinks had to be ironed out and with crowds pouring it, I am sure they were biting down really hard while having to entertain long lines of customers heaving exaggerated sighs. Much has settled since and it was time to return for another sampling of something traditional. For me, I ordered a Brazilian lemonade, a coxinha, and a feijoada. My friend ordered a steak bowl and a flan.

Flan

Japanese do it well. Mongolians do it well. Koreans do it incredibly well. Now, it is apparent that Brazilians do it equally well. The steak bowl is not just some concoction thrown into a bowl as though someone is coming up with their own version of goulash. My friend had commented briefly that it was doing the trick and after seeing that he had polished the whole dish off with very little conversation, I was not going to argue with his assessment. Steak, corn, carrots, mushrooms, cheese, and rice joined forces to do their wicked bidding on his taste buds and he smiled. And I knew there certainly was no denying that the flan he had bought was worthy of the comment, “Oh, wow, ‘this’ is really, really good.” The steak bowl and the flan will be two items that I will have to be certain to add to my list when I return.

CoxinhaAs for me, I had ordered two of the more well-known traditional dishes — coxinha and feijoada. The coxinha was a huge tear drop pastry filled with chicken, corn, and some spices that went over very well. This falls more in line with street food, such that you can walk around with it and eat it from your hands, no utensils required. The feijoada was a bowl of rice, black beans, sausage, ham hocks, and greens mineira style was worthy. After a few scoops of the feijoada, it was quite clear that Brazilian Bowl is the second Brazilian cafe in Chicago to prepare the dish the way that I remember from my trip to Salvador Bahia. There was a lot more authenticity in the flavouring than what I have had in some small Brazilian cafes scattered throughout the United States. The Brazilian lemonade was, hands-down, the real thing. It’s not a failed attempt and fancy packaging. Only at Taste of Brasil have I had it authentically and now Brazilian Bowl matches the wow in the flavour exactly. The balance of tart and sweetness as well as the creamy consistency tell it all.

Feijoada

There are two other Brazilian restaurants in Chicago that I love to frequent — Taste of Brasil and Sabor Express. After the most recent visit to Brazilian Bowl and seeing that they have settled into a fantastic routine, I now can say that there is a third Brazilian cafe that I will frequent. I love the big box eateries like Fogo de Chão, Texas de Brazil, Sal y Carvao, Brazzaz, and the like, but there are times when you want something that puts you in the streets and along the beaches where the flavours reach out to you and tempt you to try what’s being prepared for your culinary delight. Hmm. Maybe sticking it out through the cold temperatures in Chicago isn’t so bad. Yes, I can dream of being in Brazil where it’s warm. Some delicious food from Brazilian Bowl will help me have clearer visions when I do start to dream.

Brazilian Bowl on Urbanspoon

Gino on the Floor

Fogo de Chao

Thanksgiving, 2012, came and went. There was food for all feasts. Cornbread dressing with brown gravy or cranberry sauce. Collard greens. Candied yams. Macaroni and cheese. String bean casserole. Cornish hens because there will be turkey for Christmas. Sweet potato pies. Apple pie. Peach cobbler. Coconut pound cake. Almond scented white cake. There was, of course, a bit of weight gain after so much delighting. But it was not because of Thanksgiving gluttony. No, I had made a pact with my high school sweetheart that for every pound she took off, I would add a pound. Being such a diligent and honest man by holding up my end of the pony, the joints in my legs are now feeling the girth of 211 pounds. As if that was not enough, I returned from enjoying Thanksgiving with family with a calendar appointment for Fogo de Chão. And everyone’s eyes open wide with surprise.

Salad Bar Options

When I started Chicago Alphabet Soup many years ago, Fogo de Chão at 661 North La Salle Street was the second restaurant I went to. That was when I had a cheap point-and-click camera and before I started using my expensive digital camera properly. It was all about the food. Having then returned from São Paulo, Brazil, I wanted to see if the churrascaria in Chicago would make me miss the megalopolis. I remember the temperatures having a bit more bite than I had been accustomed to below the equator. So it was off to the best churrascaria in Chicago for their dandy bonanza of meat, meat, rare meat, medium rare meat, well-done meat, and then some more meat. Fast forward to 2012 and I have jumped willingly into the diet of a pescatarian. Why did I agree to meet up with friends at Fogo de Chão, of all places? Could it be that my high school sweetheart had told me that she had lost a few pounds and I needed to fulfill my end of the pact? Hmm. I will let that be my excuse.

Caipirinha

Much like the temperatures were during the first visit to Fogo de Chão, I wanted something to put me in the mind of being in São Paulo years ago. A glass of ciapirinha certainly would make that happen. Think of a mojito without the mint. I was quite happy, although I was aware of the sweater I had on, which meant I was aware of being in Chicago instead of in Brazil. Being a lightweight, I needed something to keep the alcohol from having me floating about the restaurant in my own little ether world. It was off to the salad bar. Asparagus. Mushrooms. Cheeses. Bread. Olives. Tuna salad. Chicken salad. Salmon. Smiles. You are told to get a small plate of fruit and vegetables, not to fill up on the salad bar because the gauchos will keep your table occupied with various cuts of meats, rolls that melt on your tongue like cotton candy, mashed potatoes, and baked bananas. This could easily become any glutton’s nirvana.

Spiced Beef, Parmesan Crusted Pork

Then it was time to turn over the card for “sem,” yes, yes, Yes!!! The gauchos hovered through room with slabs of meat on skewers, of which you end up in a daze wanting everything that they bring. If I were a devout pescatarian, I would have stayed away. However, I have no willpower. That was rather evident when there was the mouth-watering aroma from lombo, which is parmesan crusted pork. There was also the essence of some beef ancho wafting up my nose. Imagine if you will Oliver saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This wonder meat had me wanting to launch into song, singing, “Food, glorious food, hot mustard and sausage.” Moist. Succulent. Tender. I am sure I could come up with about two dozen more adjectives to describe the flavours, six dozen if I were to describe the taste in several other languages.

Nice to Meat You

The picanha, the best part of the sirloin and flavoured with garlic, was worthy. I could have told the gaucho to leave a quarter of the slab at the table. Then others in the restaurant would have been screaming for my head on skewer, perhaps. This choice meat was just as tender as the previous selection. There appeared to be something of a glaze to it, as there was a slight sweetness to each bite. Imagine that. Other than at Argentinean steak houses, I have never had meat like this in it natural juices without the addition of sugar to the recipes. Fogo de Chão is the first restaurant to have succeeded in making the meat sing. And I have been to all the popular churrascarias in America, Chicago boasting the majority of them.

Meat

By the time a slice of fraldinha had made it to the table, the pescatarian angel and the vegetarian angel that were sitting on my shoulders had smacked their foreheads and declared defeat of saving my belly from the evils of meat. When I was a heavy carnivore, I wanted my meats to be well done. Well, I chose to have a medium well cut of the fraldinha. Needless to say, I enjoyed it. This is more popular in Southern Brazil, and I remember stuffing myself senselessly with some of it after a capoeira ceremony in Bahia. Yes, it was better that I had partaken of this after hand stands, backward flips, cartwheels, and round-houses. I would have split my pants or landed with a thump otherwise. But at Fogo de Chão I simply had to fan myself to stave off the sweat from working so hard on the constant cuts of meat, mashed potatoes, rolls, and baked bananas.

Meat

In keeping with dining on beef primarily, I requested a cut of the alcatra. It was at this point that the previously mentioned angels were sparring behind my back. This is my favourite. I have been to all the other churrascarias in the city — Texas de Brazil, Sal y Carvão, and Brazzaz — and whatever attempts they have made at alcatra seemed to fall into the okay category. There is no want for a cigarette afterwards. There’s no silence, which is an indication that the food is working magic on you. There is no Wow! Much like me wanting the picanha all to myself, the alcatra invokes that same sensation.

Meat

Rounding out my choices of meats was a cut of filet mignon. Growing up, filet mignon was always presented as bacon wrapped around ground beef. Who thought that was a brilliant idea? For my Brazilian dining experience, I opted for a medium rare cut. Now, usually when I have ever asked for any meat to be medium rare, the cow was still protesting. My appetite would have a quick pace running far from the restaurant. At Fogo de Chão the medium well cut of filet mignon was a tender piece of juicy meat that did not squirt or squirm. I worked my knife and fork on it like those actors in commercials who smile for the camera. But more than smiling, I actually ate the meat and I had no remorse, even for my pescatarian sensibilities.

Flan

After about two hours of flipping the coaster back and forth over to alert the gauchos to bring meat and to stop bringing meat, it was time to stop the meat odyssey and polish the palate with some dessert. I have mentioned in past posts that I could put any cornfed Iowa Bart or Indiana Billy Joe Bob to shame at the dinner table and desert number one of three was a case study of that. The flan was creamy like the flans I loved from Santo Domingo. As much as I love flan, my blood pressure cannot say the same. But I am not a “yes” man to constantly working my teeth on the delectable dessert every time the option presents itself. Pause. Okay, it’s most of the time that I concede to my want and gnash away on flan without complaint.

Pastel de Tres Leches

However, I shall not forget about the tres leches cake. Having had a slice of it from a restaurant a few months ago where I swear they poured a whole carton of milk on the cake, turned the carton upside down, and then hit the carton from the bottom to get the last drops out of it, the pastel de tres leches at Fogo de Chão had a texture not of drowned cake. Enjoyed with some cafezinho, coffee, I can say with certainty that everything was okay in the land. To be honest, let me stop pulling your leg and just say that I was drunk from too much eating. Not one for turning into a jester, had I been at home, I would have danced, sang, and put on a performance. Food, glorious food.

Chocolate Molten Cake, Ice Cream

The award for most gluttonous eater of 2012 goes to, none other than, Gino Williams. The chocolate molten cake with a dollop of vanilla ice cream under a drizzle of chocolate was the coup de grace. Here is where we had Gino on the floor. There is a restaurant in downtown Chicago called Grand Lux Cafe that has the best molten chocolate cake in the whole world. The cake at Fogo de Chão runs a very close second. I had been sitting for three hours filling my jaws and the act of standing was not an option. Having to move about was impossible. It was bad enough that I had to force myself to lean over so I could retrieve my wallet to pay the tab. But standing up and realizing that I was bent over like a geriatric was all anyone needed to see to know that I had shed my British polishing for being a thoroughly satisfied food brute.

My running joke is that Fogo de Chão is indeed a lazy buffet, as all you have to do is sit while the gauchos tempt you with all the various choices of meats. There are the side dishes, but the whole churrascaria experience is worth the trip. You may find other churrascarias in the city, but the one that you may find yourself frequenting is Fogo de Chão, hands down. One thing to note is that the price may grow a few grey hairs in your head, in your beard if you’re bald. Go for lunch instead, when the prices are not as cha-ching as the dinner prices. But make sure it is during a half day at work because eating too much will result in a dire need to go to sleep afterwards. Another thing is that it would be a crime to go to the restaurant if you are not one for eating meat. The salad bar panders to the vegetarian and pescatarian palates wonderfully. Still, the constant view of meat would tempt even a staunch vegan. As for me, I think I gained enough weight to keep my word to my high school sweetheart. But that was not enough. She called and told me that she lost a few more pounds. Looks like I will be getting up to 220 pounds by the beginning of the New Year. My resolution will be to stop making pacts, but it won’t be to stop eating like a bottomless culinary fanatic.

Fogo de Chão on Urbanspoon

Precious Memories

Pico de Gallo

Are there times when your mind wanders back to something that brought a smile to your face and you wish that you could return to that time and live through that smile-inducing experience again? Are there moments when you recall a certain dish that was so good you found yourself thinking that it would never be as good as the first time? Are there times when you pass by places and find yourself captivated by something you saw in the window briefly? I have those deja vu episodes all the time. Mostly my precious memories involve food. And, yes, I smile. This was the case recently when I was in Oak Park going to a certain wine shop to buy a bottle or two of wines. On my way, I took the scenic route and to my wandering eyes should I espy a Mexican cafe. Nothing spectacular, rather small in size, I recalled my days of living in Chicago’s Rogers Park where I had my pick of Mexican holes in the wall that served food so delicious that it had dawned on me several months after constant visits that my Spanish had improved.

Quesadillas Con Arroz, Frijoles y EnsaladaFresh Mex Cafe at 1110 Westgate Street is immediately off of Marion Street, a thoroughfare where you can find a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and specialty boutiques. With only a few chairs for seating and rather cramped, it was also a bit reminiscent of some small shanties where I had been warned not to go in Mexico City when I was there years ago with work. American accent intact, I ordered quesadillas con arroz, frijoles, and salad. And there was no way that I was going to have anything to drink other than a pineapple Jarito. For all you lovers of high fructose corn syrup in your beverages, get your fingers around a Jarito that gets its sweetening from cane sugar. You will thank me.

Truly Fresh Mex Cafe is about authenticity. I started with chips and salsa. The chips were not unflavoured Dorito’s — absolutely not. These were fresh and a bit warm, which was all the indication that I needed to realize that they were made in-house. The pico de gallo, although looking rather pedestrian, had a kick to it that made me want to dance the mariachi music playing in the background. Chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers were all that I needed to have me no longer wanting any kind of salsa from a jar. Then the quesadilla with all the trimmings came. Chihuahua cheese between corn tortillas and cooked on a griddle were served up with Spanish rice that was neither al dente nor mushy. And let me not forget about the frijoles with extra crunch tortillas and the salad that came with a dollop of sour cream and a grande scoop of guacamole. Mind you, the guacamole was just avocado and tomatoes, no extra additives, but the taste was perhaps ten notches past divine. No mentira. With pineapple jarito in hand, my lunch was complete. I had not just entered a restaurant, but I had gone into some Mexican’s kitchen and had a taste of home.

Flan

There were only two dessert options on the menu. One was a flan. The other was tres leches cake. The main plate was so filling that I opted for the flan. Accented with a thin caramel glaze and topped with a cherry, this flan was so creamy that you would have thought that it was custard. There was a texture akin to the lemon in the lemon meringue pies that I bake. Only in Mexico where no one spoke any English — or tried — have I had flan that heavenly. It may sound cliché, but I didn’t know what to do with myself, everything was so remarkable on my tongue. I think I discovered some secrets, whatever they may be.

Fresh Mex Cafe is indeed a hidden gem. On a side street that enters into a stretch for a parking lot, you could pass by it and think that it was one of the few businesses that have closed. There are no fancy signs, flash, fanfare, or indicators to grab the attention. Much like me on the day that I went, you have to casually stroll through the area and take in the scenery slowly, not in a rush. And once you go inside, be prepared to be served some outstanding comida de concina por Mexicanos quienes saben comadia buena.

The Warmth of Guatemala — El Tinajon

El Tinajon

Another grey day in Chicago and I spent most of it inside watching the telly. Thank you, winter. A week had passed since I had gone out and put my feet under some table at one of many eateries in the city. Part of it was having to deal with a bloody cold. Nothing like having your lights and heat go out because someone hit a patch of black ice, smacked into a pole, and took out part of the electrical grid. A frosty apartment is a sure way of catching a cold and, in my case, a bad one. Having a little recovery, my appetite returned and I was a bit tired of cabin fever. So I said to myself, let the hunt for something to fill the belly begin.

Chips y Salsa

Chips y Salsa

After looking through the list of entries for the alphabet soup, I figured that I would fill in a few ethnic restaurant entries that did not have a lot of alphabetic representation. The letter G was the first to blink on my radar. Because I could count on Chicago to have at least one letter, I consulted my magic ball — Google, to be honest — and saw a Guatemalan restaurant in one of the neighbourhoods not far from me. The weather outside had warmed up just a bit. I must admit that 35 degrees is fantastic compared to the temperatures bordering on zero degrees that we had been having. I layered up enough to stay warm, grabbed my camera, camera bag, and Kindle for reading, and I was off to have comida de Guatemala.

Pache de Papas

Pache de Papas

El Tinajon at 2054 W. Roscoe Street became my destination. Located on the most active street in Roscoe Village is a gem that you could miss amid all the swanky boutiques and art chic-chic restaurants. Festive in colour and warm in spirit, it is a cute spot for a quick meal. From outside, everyone looked like they were having their fair share of communal fulfilment. When I entered, there was suddenly silence. Only when I said, solo yo, did conversation resume almost with a sigh in the air. Once everyone began talking again, I understood the exaggerated pause — everyone in the seating area spoke Spanish only. Well, that is common in Latin restaurants, but I do not look the part of someone who could be Latin, let alone speak Spanish. I sat by the window so that I could get a good number of photographs with natural light.

Camarones al Ajo

Camarones al Ajo

First to the table was a complementary basket of chips and salsa. The chips were nice and crunchy. The salsa was a bit thin yet flavourful. Not that I am a fan of all of my salsa being chunky, watery salsa tends to soften crunchy chips faster than expected. The server approached to take my order and I made my request in Spanish only. For an appetizer, I ordered plache de papas. This was a tamale with potatoes and vegetables. Apparently, you can also get plache de papas with meat — chicken or shredded beef. I opted for the vegetarian option and was glad that I did because this appetizer was delicious. My entrée was camarones al ajo. These shrimp were cut so that they were spread out like butterflies and it was quite clear to see that El Tinajon does not use the small nibble-size shrimp for this entrée. The things were plump and large. The shrimp was in a garlic sauce so reminiscent of scampi, albeit not excessive on the garlic. The rice with corn and peas in it had the texture of Asian sticky rice. This was not a bad thing, but rice prepared in most Latin dishes is fluffy. Needless to say, I ate it to completion. I washed it all down with a glass of tamarind juice. For those of you who have never had a tamarind or the juice, it could be a bit of an acquired taste. It is hard to describe the flavour, but there is a slight fermented kick that you get from some of it. I completed the dining experience with a flan. Decorated so perfectly, it was clear that it had been yanked from the refrigerator, dolled with a caramel top, garnished with strawberry and chocolate glaze, and topped with a cherry. It was a bit cold to the bite still. When you have had smooth and even creamy flan, you almost find yourself wearing the tattoo of flan snob somewhere visible. If I should ever return, I may try a warm dessert.

Flan

Flan

 

El Tinajon was a nice escape for the afternoon out of the apartment. There is a bit of charm to the place. The prices are incredibly reasonable. With the restaurant being on a street that has a tremendous amount of American pedestrian foot traffic, the food may pander to the American taste mostly. The discriminating palate knows. If you want something quick and still have enough dollars to fluff your wallet and a fair amount of change to jingle in your pocket thereafter, give El Tinajon a try. Chicago boasts a good number of Guatemalan restaurants, but El Tinajon is the only one that is not a fusion with some other Latin cuisine.

And now for me to think of what ethnicity to seek next.

El Tinajon on Urbanspoon